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In this photo released by the Department of Corrections, COVID-19 prisoners sit inside a field hospital set up at the Medical Correctional Institution to treat COVID-19 inmates in Bangkok, Thailand on May 8, 2021. © 2021 Department of Corrections, Thailand via AP

(New York) – People held in Thailand’s overcrowded prisons and detention facilities are at grave risk from Covid-19 outbreaks. The Thai authorities should immediately act to ensure that prisoners and detainees have access to adequate protective measures and health care. The authorities should swiftly reduce overcrowding by releasing people who do not pose a serious and concrete risk to others.

On May 12, 2021, Thailand’s Corrections Department announced that 1,795 inmates in Bangkok Remand Prison and 1,040 in Central Women’s Correctional Institution had tested positive for the virus that causes Covid-19. In addition, hundreds of people detained in provincial prisons such as in Chiang Mai and Narathiwat have reportedly tested positive for the novel coronavirus.  

“The Thai government is obligated under international law to ensure that prisoners and detainees have adequate health protections and care, particularly during escalating Covid-19 outbreaks,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Besides providing health care and virus testing, the authorities should reduce the detainee population through supervised release of those held on politically motivated charges or for minor offenses, or who face greater risk from underlying health conditions.”

The Corrections Department reported that Thailand has 380,000 inmates across the country. Almost 20 percent are in pretrial detention, according to World Prison Brief. These include members of pro-democracy movements who have been charged but not yet tried for lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) and other politically motivated offenses.

Under international human rights law, the Thai government has an obligation to ensure accessible health care for people in custody that is at least equivalent to that available to the general population. It must not deny or limit detainees’ equal access to preventive, curative, or palliative health care, regardless of citizenship, nationality, or migration status.

The Thai authorities should urgently take preventive measures by ensuring that staff and people in detention have adequate personal protective equipment, access to regular Covid-19 testing, quality health care, and water, sanitation, and hygiene. Prison authorities should establish and maintain appropriate social distancing measures. The Corrections Department should regularly communicate in a transparent manner about the Covid-19 situation in detention facilities with staff, people in custody, and the general public.

The Thai government should also follow United Nations guidance for any additional measures and take immediate steps to address prison overcrowding, including prison releases. Thailand’s releases of prisoners and detainees who are at increased risk of complications from the virus that causes Covid-19 have been far too few and too slow, contributing to preventable suffering.

Thailand should consider reducing populations in prisons and detention facilities through appropriate supervised release of detainees at high risk of suffering serious effects from the virus, such as older people and people with underlying health conditions. The Thai authorities should also take into consideration factors such as the gravity of the person’s crime, the length of their sentence, and the amount of time already served. In addition, those who may be scheduled for release soon, those in pretrial detention for nonviolent and lesser offenses, and those whose continued detention is similarly unnecessary or not justified should also be considered for early release.

Following an April 5 decision by the Corrections Department to suspend all prison visits, the authorities should ensure that prisoners and detainees are able to maintain regular communication with the outside world and allow for independent monitoring of conditions in the prisons. Alternatives to in-person visiting should be put in place, such as video calls and phone calls. The visiting restrictions should be time-bound and subject to review.

“The Thai government needs to be forthright about the Covid-19 outbreaks in its prison system and how it intends to avoid disastrous consequences for those held,” Adams said. “Many people warned the Thai authorities that they needed to act proactively to avoid such a situation, but it seems they got caught sleeping at the switch.”  

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